Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Prague, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down

Left: the funicular that, ironically enough, brought me up, and not down

Well, I suppose I deserve it: there's no better way to invite Larry David-style annoyances than to gloat about how lovely a place is on your blog. Today started out okay with a visit to the Veletržní Palác, Prague's 20th century art museum (where I discovered the amazing František Kupka), but went downhill from there. First, I'm in the subway about to get on a train, and a weird-looking dude grabs my shoulder and says something in Czech. I shake my head and try to get out of his reach. He jogs up after me and says something again, and I keep trying to move away—is this just an aggressive panhandler like I'm used to in San Francisco, or is somebody about to take out their anti-Bush sentiments on a random American? In about three seconds, a policeman appears, and I'm relieved: they'll get this weirdo away from me. But the cop goes right for me, getting in front of me and hollering at me in Czech. What did I do? What's happening?! "Ne razumiem!!" I wail in Polish, hoping it's also Czech. "Ticket!" says the policeman. Ohhhh. It's my first transport ticket check! If you aren't familiar with much of the rest of the world's transit systems, a lot of them operate on the honor system, where nobody checks you when you get on a train but there are supposedly random sweeps for scofflaws. I dutifully bought a 7-day pass in Warsaw but never once saw anybody get checked, and thank God, I had my Prague 3-day pass in my wallet here. I'd read in a guide book that Prague employs plainclothes officers to check people, but jeez, isn't this taking it a bit far? Although, again, perhaps I'm just so used to dealing with crazies on the SF Muni that I'm a bit jumpy. Anyway, I showed the guys my ticket and we had a good chuckle—they were very apologetic. After another annoyance—the whole point of my trip on the subway at that point was to go visit the Prague historical museum which turned out to be inexplicably closed when I got there—I came back to the same subway station and saw about six similar scenarios playing themselves out near the entrance: old women with pleading voices, sporty-jacket dudes searching their pockets, all surrounded by the same policemen and plainclothes officers. So, if somebody grabs you on the subway in Prague, you might not necessarily want to run.

Right: view from up by the castle zone

Other annoyances today include a pastry stand that wouldn’t sell me a small pastry since those are not sold by the piece but only by the 100 gram weight and they wouldn't just weigh one, and the equivalent pastry (a blackberry thingamabob) did not exist in the large pastry section for individual sale; the Deutsche Bank that took me 20 minutes to find in order to make an ATM withdrawal since BofA has a no-fee deal with them was temporarily unable to dispense cash, and the funky café the guidebook recommended for breakfast seemed to have vanished into thin air. Also, I think I found a general flaw in what seemed like Prague's unassailable façade, and the flaw is us: annoying American expats. I met a couple people last night, friends of a friend here in town, and I'm just going to go ahead and talk about them: they were snobby and rude in this way that I'm theorizing may have something to do with long-term life abroad, although perhaps the seeds were there already. When I met them I was exhausted and I tried to apologize and explain that jet lag (and my wonky schedule) is kicking my ass unexpectedly on this trip, and the guy pauses and says to me, "Do you complain about being tired in America?" What the f***?! Later I see a sign on a garage we're walking by that says "NEPARKOVAT" and I laugh, since that was just starting to be an imported Americanism in Russian when I lived there, and I ask the gal if that's a real Czech word at this point or if the writer was being funny, and she rolls her eyes and says, "It means 'not to park' or 'no parking'." Oh does it now. Perhaps the fact that I'd just pronounced the word correctly might have clued you in that I'm familiar with it? They had this way of making sure to flaunt their knowledge of Czech and only grudgingly explaining the random insider-y stuff they dropped hints about in the conversation. Later in the evening the guy turns to me and says, sneeringly, "jeez, I'm just so out of the loop, so tell me, what's that Britney Spears doing?" Which I suppose could be innocuous but in this context (and tone of voice) took on an air of "you silly home-based Americans and your petty concerns." Anyway, I'm not really worried about them seeing this since they didn’t give one whit about my tour or what the hell I was doing there, and didn't ask my DJ name or anything. But if they do see this, sorry guys, but you were a little rude.

Left: old town square

Boy, I really hope I wasn't that much of a jerk when I lived in Russia and met Americans who were kind of clueless about the place. I suppose I probably was, but I was also like 22 and thought I was the only foreigner to ever truly understand the Russian soul. Sigh.

But even with all these annoyances, Prague, I still love you: I had an awesome lunch at the Café Louvre of French onion soup, a glass of the new Beaujolais, a towering club sandwich, a raspberry caramel sundae, a local fizzy water and a frothy espresso, and the total price: 300 koruny, or about $15. Plus I freakin' smoked afterwards, right there in the restaurant!! Also the city continues to dumbfound me with its beauty: there's this spot by the river where some buildings are built out over the water on a pier and the water cascades underneath into a kind of lagoon by the Charles Bridge, and it's just about the coolest spot in the world. Like on much of this tour so far, I can't help but think to myself, "this would be really awesome if it wasn't freezing."

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